Not long ago, Harvard engineer David Edwards was dining in Bordeaux with famed French molecular gastronomist Thierry Marx and colloidal chemist Jérôme Bibette. Suddenly, tucking into a plate of gourmet fare, Edwards — who specializes in aerosols — had what might be called a voilà! moment.
"Maybe," he recalls over the phone from Paris, "we could breathe food! Wouldn't that be interesting?"
And so, inspired by this Jetsonian model of the future of food, comes Le Whif, an aerosolized form of inhalable chocolate that may just represent a paradigm shift in the way humans consume comestibles.
Or, more likely, it probably won't. But at any rate, the airy amuse bouche — which has been available as a prototype in Europe for several months, and will soon be available online (at lewhif.com) and in stores (primarily around the Harvard campus) — is a fun and calorie-free way to satisfy a sweet tooth.
More to the point, it's a minor object lesson in the boundary-pushing imagination of its Willy Wonka–like creator.
Edwards, the Gordon McKay Professor of the Practice of Biomedical Engineering at Harvard, has devoted most of his career to serious science and medical innovations, devising novel delivery mechanisms for nanostructured medicines. He's worked on developing inhaled insulin for diabetes treatment and getting needle-free vaccines to the developing world. He's an expert, according to his Harvard bio, on "fluid mechanics, interfacial transport phenomena, drug delivery, and aerosol science."
But he's always been keenly interested in the intersection of science with art. In addition to his research, teaching, and writing, Edwards is the co-founder of Le Laboratoire (lelaboratoire.org), which he describes as a "small, incubative" space for experiments peopled by "artists and designers at the frontiers of science."
The experiments undertaken at Le Laboratoire — which opened in 2007 and is located near the Louvre and Centre Pompidou in Paris (an American version, the Laboratory, opened this past November at Harvard) — are much different from your typical petri-dish and Bunsen-burner fare.
They range "from pure contemporary art, to industrial design, to culinary art and design," says Edwards. Recent projects have included a sleekly designed air purifier that took inspiration from the filtration properties of tree leaves, and an inquiry into how mood affects space and design, gauged by measuring vistors' neurobiological responses.
Edwards — whose provocative books include Artscience: Creativity in the Post-Google Generation and Whiff, a nonfiction/graphic-novel hybrid, co-authored with Japanese manga artist Junko Murata, that recounts Le Whif's creation (both Harvard University Press) — takes this commingling of art and science seriously. Because he strongly believes that, when the two work in tandem, creativity is catalyzed.
The common stereotype, he says, is that science is merely "analytical and deductive," with a somber mission to "simplify a complex world." Art, on the other hand, is commonly seen as an "aesthetic method that's intuitive and inductive and celebrates uncertainty and ambiguity."
But, in fact, he says, "artists and scientists who are very creative tend to really blend both of those methods in what they do. Scientists love being wrong; being wrong means they're learning something. And artists often have to be precise and analytical in creating these major complex works of art."